Buck rubbed his fist over his eyes in hopes of keeping the tears from actually falling. It was late, and the sun had just started to set, its orange light flooding the ranch; everything, the stable, the prairie grass, the corral fence he was leaning against was caught up in the glow, looking like embers from a fire. He'd had dreams, ambitions, and he couldn't say the ranch had lived up to most of them. The house was empty with just him and Teaspoon rattling around inside of it. The bunkhouse usually stood vacant, no hands wanting to stay for too long in the employ of an Indian. They got by, but they never had enough to not worry.
Life had intervened a thousand times during his thirty-two years and diverted him from other paths. He didn't have regrets, exactly, because he could not say that he had had a lot of choices. People needed him, people died or they left, and he had to bend with that, like a tree in a wind. No, the ranch was not everything he'd wanted, but he'd been happy here, contented at the very least. He'd worked hard to make the ranch what it was and now, in a matter of days, it was collapsing before him.
Teaspoon was snoring on the porch. Buck wondered when exactly he'd started looking out for the older man instead of the other way around. Teaspoon had dug his heels in late in life and he was refusing to give in to death, but Buck knew that was a fight that sooner or later would be lost. He was afraid of that. He felt alone now; without Teaspoon he would be cast adrift on an endless sea, easy prey for every storm.
His musings were interrupted by the approach of a horse from town. He turned to see a young woman leading an ancient, ugly, and sway-backed horse. Something about her seemed vaguely familiar, but at the moment he didn't have the energy to puzzle it out. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"Hope so. Charlie here's got some problem with his leg. I was told a Mr. Cross that lives hereabouts might be able to do something for him."
Buck stepped towards the girl and took the lead rope, focusing mostly on the animal. "Well, I'll take a look and see what I can do."
"I'd appreciate-" she stopped mid-sentence and stared at him, slack-jawed, "You!"
Buck looked back at her, puzzled. Slowly her face came into focus in his memory. "You're the girl from Tompkins," he said, as he remembered her, pretending to be Jenny and running the store after Tompkins died.
"Name's Joss," she said, sounding put out, "That was some dirty trick of yours, savin' a body's life, just so you could haul 'em in before judge and jury," she spat.
Buck stared at her, momentarily struck dumb. "A dirty trick of mine," he countered when he'd found his voice, "You were the one breaking the law."
"I ran that store honest!"
Buck simply shook his head, "You're lucky Jenny let me know she was alright, or I'd have thought you'd done something to keep her from taking over the store yourself."
"Look, mister, everything was above aboard, alright? The old man had been sending mail to her at a wrong address for years, not that it's any business of yours."
Buck sighed, he didn't have the energy to argue further, "Do you want me to look at this horse or not?"
"Yes, I do," she said huffily and followed him towards the barn, Charlie in tow. "And I'll pay for your services."
"With stolen money no doubt," Buck muttered. He slid his hand down the horse's leg, looking for signs of injury. "This horse is old; you shouldn't still be riding him."
"Charlie wants to go out with his boots on, thank you very much." She looked around the nearly deserted barn and whistled, "Sorta empty for a horse ranch, ain't it?"
"Horse thieves pretty much cleaned us out last week," Buck said, still looking over the horse. "What are you doing in Sweetwater?"
Joss rolled her eyes in irritation, "I guess since you saved my life you think you're owed a full accountin' of my activities."
"No," Buck answered through gritted teeth, "but if you're working a scam, I'll see that the sheriff knows about it."
"I just bet you would," she muttered. "But for your information, I'm workin' above board here. I happen to be selling a miracle elixir what makes anyone's personality more pleasant and pleasing to the opposite sex. I'd be happy to give you a discount; if anyone's personality needs sweetenin' I'd say it's yours."
"That doesn't sound above board. What is it? Water and alcohol?"
"And some molasses for kick. Look, mister, if someone's fool enough to believe the stuff works, they're fool enough to be parted from their money."
Buck straightened up and patted Charlie's neck, the horse nickered in reply. "His joints are worn out. Let him rest here a couple of days, I'll wrap his legs up with some liniment, that'll ease the trouble; but the bottom line is he doesn't have that much left in him. He ought to be put out to pasture."
Joss reached out to stroke Charlie's nose and Buck was surprised at the softness in her expression as she looked at the animal. Finally she shook her head, "I couldn't do that to Charlie, he'd get bored. But I'll take you up on the rest and the liniment. Now, how much is that goin' to run me?"
Buck shrugged, "It doesn't cost me anything to look after him. There's no charge."
"Oh, no you don't mister. I don't like being beholden to anyone, let alone to an irritating someone. Now, this Parson's Personality and Charm Elixir happens to be quite a success and I'm flush right now, so let's just square up on everything. Now, how much for seein' to Charlie and savin' my life in that fire?"
Buck looked at her. His stubborn side kicked in and he'd be damned if he gave her the satisfaction of paying him back for his good deed in Rock Creek. "Feed and liniment for Charlie would be about four dollars a day."
She nodded briskly and pulled a large wad of bills from her coat pocket. "Alright, then, here's enough for three days in advance. Cain't usually stay in one place longer than that, but if things work differently here, I'll add to it. Now, about savin' my life? I figure I ain't worth much, but you weren't to know that at the time. Say fifty dollars?" She peeled off half of the bills from the roll in her hand and held it out towards him.
Buck smiled, feeling a strange giddy sort of vengeful warmth spread out through his veins, "You're awfully worried about paying me back considering that you were robbing my friend's store blind."
"That's because I'm a thief, not a charity case! Nobody ever gave me nothin'." She glared at him, her green eyes hard and bright, and shoved the wad of bills towards him.
Buck almost laughed. He gently pushed her hand away. "I can't take money for doing what was right."
She was trembling with fury now, unsure what to do or look at. "Alright, if that's how you want to play it, Mister. I'll pay you back my own way." She let the threat hang on the air as she indignantly left the barn and marched back towards town. Buck watched her go, feeling lighter than he had in days.
Two days after Joss had left Charlie, Buck looked over his and Teaspoon's dwindling pantry. A trip into town would be required if they were to eat, and he didn't expect his credit would be too good anymore. He sighed. There was no avoiding it, he would lose the ranch. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of several horses out in the yard, and Buck joined Teaspoon on the porch to investigate.
A man and his son led five horses, each one sleek and shiny, and beautiful, into the yard. Buck watched them jealously. Horses like that once filled his stable, nickered softly in the night and ran in the corrals during the day. Bright, elegant creatures that were always just wild enough. He was so wrapped in his gentle envy that he didn't even stop to wonder what they were doing at his ranch, until Teaspoon nudged him gently in the ribs. With a sigh, Buck left the porch to greet them.
"Where you want these, Mr. Cross?" the man asked, politely if hurried.
Buck stared at him, open mouthed, entirely confused by the question, "Did you want to board all of them? For how long?"
"Board them?" the man asked, the confusion on his face mimicking Buck's, "Sir, your partner bought these from us two nights ago. Said you needed something to start a herd with."
"Partner?" Buck stuttered, wondering which of his friends had been so magnanimous. The only one with money to spare was Cody and he had his own life, far from Sweetwater.
"Yes, sir. She paid cash for the whole lot."
"This is a mistake," Buck said quickly, "I don't have a partner. These horses belong to somebody else."
"Look, mister, I ain't got time for this. The lady was real specific. Said this was the ranch, and to talk to a Mr. Cross. Ain't you Mr. Cross?"
The man cut him off with a barked order to his son, and the two of them started herding the horses into the empty corral. Buck merely watched in confusion, unable to believe his good fortune and unwilling to trust it. Teaspoon hobbled off the porch and over to him, leaning heavily on his cane. "I ain't never been a religious man, but if that ain't an answer to prayer I don't know what is."
Buck looked at him, "I don't know where they came from, Teaspoon. Who would've done this for us? Emma and Sam don't have the money - nobody has the money for this."
"Son, you heard what they say about not looking a gift horse in the mouth?" Teaspoon said with a grin, and Buck nodded. "Well that goes more than double when there's ten of them."
Buck called to the man as he started to go, "Did my partner leave her name at least?"
The man shook his head, "Don't rightly remember; I paid more attention to where I was to deliver. She said it was payment for a debt she owed."
A thought began to creep into Buck's head and he shook his head as if he might shake it loose and prevent it from being true. "What did she look like?" he asked, though he thought he already knew the answer, "Brown hair, faded dress, disagreeable?"
The man nodded, "Yeah, that sums her up pretty well. Take it you do know her after all."
"You might say that," said Buck through gritted teeth, and he waved as the man and his son left.
She burst into the barn, breathless. Buck's hand went for his gun at the sound, but stopped when he saw her. He smiled wryly and turned back to his work. "Come for Charlie?" he asked, seeing no reason to wonder why her face was red and sweat was soaking through her blouse.
"Yeah," she gasped, and headed towards the stall where Charlie nickered in greeting.
Buck stepped in front of her, "You can't take him."
Her green eyes snapped with anger. "You can't tell me what to do. Now I don't got time to argue with you; step aside."
"Charlie's old and worn out. Take one of the new ones. Consider it partial payment on the loan you gave the place."
She gaped at him, stuttering before she finally got enough wind to reply. "Oh, no you don't. We're even now. You saved me; now I saved you. And that's the end of it."
"I can't take ten horses from a stranger."
"Seriously, mister," she said angrily, "I ain't got time for arguin'. There's one ugly and angry fella after me who just got his proposal refused, despite having purchased a case of Parson's Personality and Charm Elixir. So I gotta scoot, and now."
While Buck processed what she was saying, he heard the sound of an approaching horse, running hell for leather, as though the Express was making deliveries again. He left the stall unattended to look out the door. A huge white horse, with an even larger man astride him, was thundering towards the ranch. "That's Silas Taylor," Buck muttered.
"Know him?" Joss asked, as she hurriedly saddled Charlie behind Buck's back.
"He picks up work here from time to time," Buck turned and took Charlie's reigns out of her hands. "You can't outrun him on Charlie. It'll kill the horse."
"Glad to see you're so worried about me."
Buck gritted his teeth, "You got yourself into this mess; you can get yourself out of it. No reason to bring an innocent animal into it."
"You think I'm goin' to reason with that lug? He's hoppin' mad, thinks I cheated him."
Buck didn't answer, just went about methodically unsaddling Charlie and making the old horse comfortable again. Joss watched him and sputtered incoherent and frustrated syllables. All too soon Silas Taylor rode into the yard and jumping off his horse, hollered, "Where are you, you cheatin', lyin'-"
Buck walked out calmly and waved cheerfully at Silas, "Hi, Silas, looking for work?"
"Uhh, no sir. I'm looking for that girl that's been sellin' this snake oil in town. Heard her horse was boarded out here, figured she'd stop by before skippin' out." Silas didn't meet Buck's eye but rather skimmed the property, looking for a place Joss might have hidden.
"Do you mean Joss? I haven't seen her but I expect to. She's helping me get the ranch started up again."
"That ain't a good idea, Mr. Cross. That girl talks a mile but she's a lyin' snake and that's the truth. She said one bottle, one drink, of that stuff she was selling would make me irresistible to, how'd she put it, "all women, some men, and most dogs". Why I bought ten dollars of the stuff and Alice Connor just turned me down." Silas dug the toe of one of his boots into the dirt, his round, pock marked face blushing.
Buck chuckled in spite of himself; Alice Connor was as pretty as Silas was ugly and cold hearted to boot. "Now, Silas, didn't Joss tell you about her money back guarantee?"
"Money-back guarantee!" a shrill voice squealed from the barn.
"Pigeons," Buck said lamely, in answer to Silas' bulging eyed stare. "Look, Silas, I'm just barely getting the ranch back on its feet, I don't have any cash on me right now, but I promise I'll get you your ten dollars back, alright?"
Silas looked at him keenly, "You sure she ain't in the barn, Mr. Cross?"
"I'm certain. Now, you know I'm honest, right? Would I be in business with a cheat?"
Silas shrugged, "No, guess not. But I want that ten dollars," he said vehemently, "with interest." With stooped shoulders he remounted and headed back into town at a more leisurely pace, much to the relief of his horse. Buck sighed in relief and turned back to the barn.
"There ain't no guarantee. If ye're stupid enough to think a drink of anything would make you change yer spots, then you deserve to lose what I can get from ya." Joss said defiantly, as she once again saddled Charlie.
She shrieked as Buck swung her up over his shoulder and headed for the house, where Teaspoon stood at the door, watching the scene with barely concealed amusement. Joss kicked and screamed, but Buck seemed unconcerned as he walked on into the house.
"What are you planning on doing with her now?" Teaspoon asked as he hobbled after Buck and into the house.
Buck didn't answer. His teeth seemed about to break, as his jaw tightened like a vice, keeping in whatever awful things were boiling behind his eyes. He stopped in the middle of the parlor and made a strange circular step, as if trying to choose a direction to go, a place to store his squirming, agitated burden. At last he flopped her onto the sofa with an irritated grunt and stood staring down at her. Teaspoon sat down in a convenient chair to watch the fireworks. The two stared at each other for a small eternity, both too stubborn to back down. "Does this happen often?" Buck asked icily, "That you get run out of town?"
"Often enough," Joss spat back.
Buck snorted contemptuously, "Then don't you think maybe it's time you looked for honest work?"
Joss looked to Teaspoon with mute appeal, but the older man felt out of his depth against Buck's paternal tone and looked away. She sighed, "I've been on my own a long time now. I don't need you tellin' me how to live my life."
"Don't you? What if I wasn't around just now?" Buck needled.
Joss sprang up and stood nose to nose with him, unwilling to be cowed, "I'd be halfway to the next town. I ain't got money for a hotel, you know. I gotta get into town in enough time to run a scam so I can have some dinner tonight."
"Another reason why you'd be better off doing honest work," Buck repeated.
"What exactly do you think I'm going to do? Teach school?" Joss rolled her eyes.
"You could work here," Buck said without thinking, wishing as the words left his mouth that he could pull them back in like a fish on a line. Teaspoon started to cough as though something were caught in his throat, though it sounded slightly like laughter.
That had Joss floored, and she collapsed back onto the sofa. "I don't know nothin' bout horses and such," she muttered. Her eyes snapped back up to him, "And I ain't interested in cookin' and cleanin' neither."
Buck felt flustered, as though the world had suddenly been turned upside down and he was still scrambling to find his footing. "Well, do what you want. But I can't just accept those horses for nothing. I figure you're half partner in this ranch now, so you got a place here if you want it. If you don't, that suits me fine."
"No, no, no, no!" Joss scrambled back up and poked him in the chest repeatedly, emphasizing every syllable with another vicious jab at him. "Those horses were to pay back a debt. You don't owe me nothin' for 'em. And I ain't takin' nothin'. I ain't partner in nothin'."
"Fine then," said Buck with a shrug, "But you still owe me for saving you from Silas this afternoon. What are you going to give me for that?"
Joss' jaw dropped. "I ain't givin' you nothin'! I coulda outrun him if you hadn't gotten in my way."
"Not with Charlie you couldn't have. And what would you have done if Silas caught up to you? If you had to choose between the two of us, I'd think you'd prefer me."
"You? You!" Joss sputtered, her arms and shoulders trembling with rage.
Buck didn't back down, "You still owe me. And I need help getting this place up and running again."
Joss narrowed her eyes and scowled at him. Finally she nodded. "But I might not take to it. And I ain't partner in nothin'. And in three weeks I'm goin' to a poker tournament in Denver and that ain't changin'." Buck gave the tiniest nod of agreement. "And we're square after this," she muttered at last, collapsing back onto the sofa.
The horses had only been green broke and Buck had concentrated on finishing the job, leaving Joss to the daily chores of cleaning and feeding. True to her word, she knew nothing of the work, but she learned quickly and worked hard. For a time a sort of uneasy domesticity invaded the place. Teaspoon, who's condition and shaky balance prohibited most work, manned the kitchen and his bachelor's fare of beans and cornbread was eaten round the table spiced by Buck and Joss' bickering. They could agree on nothing, found fault in each other constantly, and though every morning began with a truce, invariably their true colors showed through. Buck's conscience had dictated his offer to Joss, but now every fiber of his being seemed to protest it. His carefully ordered life, organized to provide no opportunity for disappointment and minimize loss, had been invaded by anarchy.
She had moved into the second room upstairs, but only after making certain Buck understood that the door would be locked every night. "No funny business," she felt the need to remind him every night, and Buck bit his tongue to keep from listing the millions of reasons why he would rather cuddle up to a rattlesnake than her. She refused to unpack, leaving her bag open on the top of the dresser and carefully repacking it every night before she slept.
One morning, three weeks later, before Buck had woken up, Joss went to her room and checked her bag on the dresser. Everything was there, including the dollar sewn into the lining for emergencies. She buckled the bag shut and grabbing it, left the room and headed downstairs. She guessed Teaspoon would still be sleeping, but he had wakened some minutes earlier and watched in silence from the parlor rocker as she headed for the door.
"Ain't you gonna say goodbye before you go?"
Joss jumped with a startled screech. "Thought you were asleep, Teaspoon."
The old man made no comment on that, but looked at her with keen eyes. "Buck know ye're leavin'?"
She wavered under Teaspoon's look, "I told him that I was leavin' for that poker game, and if I don't go today, I won't have time to scare up a big enough kitty to play."
Teaspoon used his cane to slowly stand up and walked over to her, patting her shoulder in his usual warm manner. "I know ye're used to takin' care of yerself and all. Still, do an old man a favor and be careful. And come back once this tournament is over." Teaspoon looked down on her, as she looked down and fiddled with the catch on her bag. "You are coming back, ain't ya?"
"I dunno, Teaspoon, I ain't much used to stayin' in one place. Ain't never had a proper home before and I ain't sure I take to it." She met his eyes and frowned, "'Sides, this place is makin' me soft. I been on my own a long time now, and survivin' just fine with what I could manage, but if I stay here too long, I won't be able to stand on my own."
Teaspoon chuckled and squeezed her shoulder, "That's what family is for, to lean on."
"That ain't my style," Joss muttered. "I gotta hit the road. I'll be back by to visit ya, Teaspoon, promise ya that."
"Then that'll have to be enough," he said with a sigh. Joss stepped out the door into the pearly dawn, and Teaspoon watched her go.